New-look Bills plan to remain competitive
By John Wawrowa, Associated Press, 08/29/00
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- These are no longer your father's Buffalo Bills.
Younger, faster, and in some cases very raw, the new-look Bills -- coming off an offseason of wholesale and salary-cap induced change -- embark upon a new era, their first since 1988 minus all members of the once-dominating Big 3.
Bruce Smith's gone to Washington. Thurman Thomas is with archrival Miami. And Andre Reed landed in Denver. These were the last three players connected with Buffalo's four-straight Super Bowl entries.
What's left is a roster whose starters' average age is 27, and features 23 players with two or fewer years of NFL experience.
Then again, you've got to rebuild sometime, even the winningest team in the 1990s.
"It is different certainly without the Big 3 and they certainly are in our minds and in our hearts," said coach Wade Phillips, who returns for his third year. "But I hope there's a Big 6 or Big 8 or Big 10 that show up with this year's team. We have a lot of good young players.
"If they play well, then those are the guys we'll remember 10 years from now."
The Bills, 11-5 last season, are still considered the second-best team in the AFC East behind Indianapolis.
"Personnel will change some and that does affect how you play and how many wins you have," Phillips said. "But we're certainly optimistic right now. Talentwise, I feel good about this team."
Except for the occasional -- and predictable -- quarterback controversy flareup involving starter Rob Johnson and Doug Flutie, the offense is mostly intact. The pressure, however, is on Johnson to prove he can be the No. 1 quarterback, and also remain healthy.
In two years in Buffalo, Johnson has suffered three concussions, two of them mild, and a rib injury, a few of the reasons Flutie regularly worked himself into the starting role.
With Flutie (torn groin muscle) expected to miss the first three games, Johnson will have his opportunity to shine.
He acknowledged that questions about his health have motivated him.
"No I'm not tired of hearing (the questions) because I want to (play an injury-free season)," Johnson said. "I haven't done it yet. A lot of quarterbacks get hurt. I just think you've got to stay away from big injuries."
With Eric Moulds established as the deep threat, Peerless Price taking over for Reed, and clutch-catching tight end Jay Riemersma re-signed, the Bills have a solid core of receivers. The running game should be strong even if Antowain Smith continues to be bothered by a knee injury suffered in preseason.
Shawn Bryson, who missed his rookie season with a knee injury, has returned as fast and strong as ever, while Jonathan Linton led the team in rushing as Smith's backup.
A defense that finished No. 1 overall last year is more of a concern after losing four starters.
Although the newcomers -- defensive end Marcellus Wiley, free safety Keion Carpenter and linebackers Sam Rogers and Keith Newman -- have shown they can step in, the departures cost the Bills their depth.
"We're pretty solid," defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell said of his starters. "It's just that our backups are all rookies. They've got to learn fast."
Special teams have been Phillips' main concern, and not simply because of how the Bills' season ended on Tennessee's "Music City Miracle" in the AFC wild-card game.
Phillips said he's been unimpressed with the Bills' special teams for the last two seasons. That is what led to Ronnie Jones taking over as special teams coach following Bruce DeHaven's dismissal in January.
"We've got to challenge our special teams," Phillips said, noting that it's a young group.
The Bills only offseason acquisition was Chris Watson from Denver last Sunday to become their top return man after rookie Avion Black showed his inexperience in the preseason.